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Drug Sweep
Craig Neff
August 09, 1999
The 1999 Tour riders may have been the most exhaustively tested athletes ever
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August 09, 1999

Drug Sweep

The 1999 Tour riders may have been the most exhaustively tested athletes ever

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Even more improbable than Lance Armstrong's victory in the Tour de France was the final tally of positive drug tests during the race: zero. Just a year earlier, eight teams withdrew or were expelled from the Tour as a result of a crackdown that exposed widespread use by cyclists of anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, EPO and other banned performance enhancers, and the race's image was all but destroyed (SI, July 27, 1998, et seq.). So was the 1999 Tour absolutely clean? Get real. "You'd have to be really stupid to believe that not a single rider used any drugs," says race publicist Denis Descamps.

Armstrong could not pedal fast enough to escape the cloud of skepticism created by last year's scandal, but he adamantly denied using any illicit substances, and passed three blood and 15 urine tests during the race.

In fact, Armstrong and the 179 other riders who started this year's Tour were subjected to perhaps the most rigorous testing in sports history. They all underwent a blood assay before the race to make sure they didn't have an unusually high volume of oxygen-carrying red cells, a sign of EPO use. Tour officials conducted a total of 60 more blood tests during the race. After each of the Tour's 20 stages, urinalyses to check for steroids, stimulants, narcotics and other banned drugs were conducted on five riders: the stage winner and runner-up, the overall leader and two riders selected at random.

The testing was far from foolproof, however. There's no test for human growth hormone. Anabolic steroids can be chemically altered to render them virtually invisible in urinalysis. Steroids, EPO and other banned substances can be used months before a race to help a rider build up muscle and endurance and then forsaken during competition.

The Tour wasn't entirely without drug controversy. More than 20 riders, including Armstrong, were found to have corticosteroids—which are banned—in their urine, though at acceptably low levels. Armstrong produced a prescription to prove that his came from a skin cream he was taking to treat saddle sores. Even as they vow to make their race truly drug-free, Tour organizers can live with a scandal like that.

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